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Lady

Short story by Jane Bryce


Let’s hope they aren’t shooting tonight. Or anyway, let’s hope they
miss. The car is a capsule, hurtling through darkness. Flyovers stitch
and weave above the black hole of the lagoon. Turn up the tape.
Robbery, police harassment, random shootings, the state of the roads;
recklessness. They think I carry some special protection, ‘omo osho
oyinbo’. Child of the white wizard.

The car heads for the Shrine.  I park in a side-alley, and pick my way
past the suya stalls redolent of grilling meat, the stalls selling bottled
palm-wine or cold fizzy drinks, and make for the stall nearest the door.
A crumpled note tossed on the table pays for a handful of spliffs along
with the entry fee, and I shoulder my way into the club. The place is still
half-empty, but a tension in the air speaks of countdown to Chief Priest’
s arrival. The band is playing an energetic intro to one of the old
songs, the music already too loud to talk, the air thick with smoke. I
lower myself onto a battered of tin chair towards the front, sat back
and light a spliff.

I’ve come alone on purpose. There’s always a crowd, and tonight I feel
like being part of it, the band of followers who regularly congregate
here. They come only partly for the music, which has made his name
overseas. They come as much to hear Chief Priest speak openly the
things they only mutter over bottles of beer, their discontent pooling on
unwiped tables. I guess Chief Priest’s charisma has only been made
more compelling by his recent bout of detention on charges of possible
sedition. I was one of the few journalists who was actually allowed to
interview him in jail. It was rumoured that the authorities, confronted
with a tall, rangy, slightly dishevelled Englishman, thought I was mad
and therefore harmless, and let me in. The only others who made it
inside were a couple of columnists on a local news weekly whose editor
regularly drinks with senior state security officers. The three of us
traveled to the mid-western city where Priest was being held, and
visited Priest together. Apart from the usual political rhetoric which I’m
accustomed to hearing, Priest used the occasion to divulge that he
had found the secret of eternal youth. He was now getting younger all
the time and nothing the military regime could do could stop the
process. He was invincible, and when he came out he was going to
perform a miracle at the Shrine to demonstrate his possession of
supernatural powers. If there’s a story in it, I’m there. Don’t want to
miss the miracle.

But I have another reason for wanting to be here.  Six weeks ago, as I
was leaving the jail after the interview with Priest, I noticed a young girl
standing in the corridor holding a tin plate of food, small and slight, her
breasts just points beneath her blouse, her hair natural, her clothes
non-descript. It was her eyes that arrested me, large, wide and
fearless, returning my look without blinking. I’m used to smart women
who look me up and down, taking in the two-day stubble, open shirt,
worn jeans and rugged sandals, kiss their teeth and ignore me. Or,
noticing the recording equipment spilling from the pockets of my worn
leather shoulder bag, become curious to know more. Or, if I’m lucky,
there might be a flush of self-consciousness before their eyes drop,
and I know I can offer them a drink or a lift.

This girl did none of these things, was neither superior nor curious nor
impressed. Young as she was, she held herself with a striking dignity,
taking on all comers with the same even stare. Intrigued, I wondered
what she was doing there, alone in a place where grown men feared to
go. When I asked who she was looking for, her voice in reply was low
but clear and confident. ‘Na Chief Priest I for see. Every day I dey bring
him chop. He no fit eat this prison food.’

The warder beckoned her toward the cell, where she deposited the
plate and came out again. She walked with me and the two columnists
out into the prison compound, where she accepted an invitation to go
for a drink. We found a shack nearby and ordered beer. She asked for
a Fanta and drank it thirstily, like a child. The two guys were joking and
teasing her, asking her where she was from and why she wasn’t home
with her husband. She was from a village further east, she told them,
but when she heard Chief Priest was in prison close by, she’d left
home, skipped school, and come to town to see what she could do.
She had convinced the warders she was a relation, sent to bring food,
which she cooked at her auntie’s house a few streets away. It didn’t
add up. If she was a school-girl and she’d run away, her aunt would
have sent her home. How old was she? Fifteen or sixteen. Chief Priest
was a man in his forties, known to have a retinue of women, a prisoner
of the state. To most women, he was dangerous, bad and possibly
mad.

‘You no fear am?’ I asked her. ‘Chief Priest get powerful juju. You no
fear wetin he for do you?’ She gave him again that appraising look,
before she suddenly laughed, a high, delighted laugh. ‘He no fit do me
anyting,’ she responded. ‘Chief Priest na my friend. He promise to
marry me when he commot for jail, take me go Eko. I go leave this
place soon-soon.’ Sam was taken aback, and it was one of the others
who asked her why she wanted to marry an old man. Now for the first
time she dropped her eyes. ‘Chief Priest no be old,’ she said, barely
above a whisper. ‘He get powerful juju for true, wey make him strong
and young. Na so-so husband I want, not one old rich man for village.’

Squinting through a cloud of smoke, I remember her words as I sit on
the tin chair, waiting for Chief Priest’s entry. It’s true the man’s
powerful, but it’s the power of words, of saying the things no-one else
has the courage to say. Calling one of the country’s best-known
millionaire businessmen ‘international tief-tief’. Calling soldiers
zombies. Describing the ruling elite as ‘beasts of no nation.’  In a
climate of fear and intimidation, it translates into a daring that you
might call recklessness. The fact that it’s irresistible to women
accounts for his reputation for sleeping with five or six women a day. I
figured out long since that that’s part of the superhuman myth the man
has successfully woven around himself. So why has  this woman
bought it? At the prison that day, alone and small but fearless, she
struck me as having more to her than that. So maybe she’s just a
simple village school-girl after all.

It’s after midnight. We’ve waited over an hour and I’m starting to get
restless, when I become aware of an increase in tension. A sudden
commotion at the back of this bamboo shack that calls itself the Shrine,
heads turn as a posse of young men stamp down the aisle, and what
begins as a murmur builds to a roar. Baba-o! Baba-o! The man
himself, arms raised in a double clenched fist salute, his lithe thin body
encased in a skin-tight electric pink jumpsuit unzipped to the waist,
sweeps to the front on a wave of sound. Chief Priest has arrived. He
storms the stage in a frenzy of shouting and stamping from his massed
acolytes on the floor. The ritual begins.

……………………………………………………………………………………

Smoke hangs in the air, the drums build and build towards a
crescendo. Chief Priest begins to talk to the crowd, about jail, about
what they tried to do to him. ‘They say I smoke Indian hemp, but I tell
them, the only hemp wey I ever smoke grow right here for Nigeria .’
The trademark tantalising of the audience: ‘This song call B.O.N.N.’
The laugh, before he decodes: ‘Beasts of No Nation.’ Then he starts to
sing, and at the words ‘Animal can’t dash me human rights’, the whole
place erupts. Everybody’s standing, dancing, woven together by the
music and the magnetism of the man on stage. Then the women come
out to join him, the movement of their bodies an emanation of the
music, waists gyrating, backs to the crowd, stripteasing with clothes on.
The mounting sexual excitement is palpable, embodied in Chief Priest
himself, who struts and parades in front of the dancers. Their sexuality
may be on display but it indisputably belongs to him. Madness and
mastery. Whatever you think of him, the man knows how to create a
spectacle - like the day he married his entire dance troupe of 27
women in one ceremony because people were calling them prostitutes.

He leaves the stage for a few minutes and the dancers take over. My
eyes come to rest on one of them. Completely absorbed in the music,
her face is rapt, her eyes almost closed as her body performs its
sinuous winding movements. The small breasts are barely covered by
a thin strip of cloth, her midriff bare and daubed with paint, her face
heavily made-up with glitter highlighting the eyes and cheekbones. But
I know it’s her, the girl from the jail, and a heat comes over me as I
watch her. At that moment, Chief Priest returns to the stage, naked to
the waist, his face, chest and back daubed with white, and leads the
women in a call and response, their high reedy insistent voices
counterpoising his deeper solo. In the confusion of feelings – anger,
desire, pity - anger predominates. How can she be content to be one
of Priest’s women? To put herself on display, to sell herself so cheap,
for what? The spurious glamour of being in his orbit, the chance to
hang around him in case he decides to bestow the favour of requiring
her services? Through the anger, I’m conscious of another feeling –
disappointment. I leave the group and head for the toilets at the back,
pushing past a drunk who’s swaying across his path, stepping over the
pool of urine that’s starting to seep across the raw concrete floor. The
stink is so bad I gag, and make for the door, stepping with relief into
the tepid night air of the street.

Outside, I light a cigarette and lean against the flimsy bamboo wall of
the shack. With the smoke, I inhale the scent of frying akara, the
rancid smell of stagnant drains. It’s three in the morning, and the street
is alive with raucous conversation, people coming and going, cars
revving, the cries of hawkers offering cigarettes, chewing gum, kola
nuts, matches, aspirin. Against my  back, the wooden structure
vibrates to the music, led by Chief Priest’s voice intoning: ‘Human
rights na my property. Animal can’t dash me human rights.’
Surrendering to the insistence of the long-drawn out climax, I close his
eyes, feeling each shudder and tremor on my skin, my breathing
following the rhythm of the song. Someone is breathing next to me, just
out of synch. I can feel the warmth of her body against my arm, and
when I open my eyes, she’s looking straight into them, with that frank
and disconcerting gaze. The exaggerated make-up is gone, and with it
the look of a chief’s concubine. She is herself only, and when I ask how
she is, she responds gaily, without inhibition. ‘I wan come cook rice for
you. You get meat for house?’

In the months that follow, Ngozi becomes a fixture in the large, half-
empty apartment, coming and going at will and without warning. She
arrives early in the morning, dressed for the street in a new print
wrapper and head-tie, her skin glowing, her movements full of energy
as she changes into the old wrapper she keeps in my cupboard.  She’s
happy, it seemed, just to inhabit this space, making no demands and
showing no expectations. While I read papers or bang out a story, she
sweeps the house, washes my clothes, fills the buckets with water,
even though I keep telling her I don’t want a household slave. She
laughs as if forgiving a foreigner’s breach of etiquette. Sometimes she
asks for money and disappears for an hour or so, returning with
bunches of fresh green leaves and dried fish, tins of tomato paste and
hot peppers, onions and chunks of meat bought from the Hausa
butcher. Then she performs a mysterious alchemy in the kitchen, the
aroma gradually becoming so distracting I can no longer think about
anything else. When I hear the thud thud thud of the pestle in the
mortar, I surrender and go and watch her pounding yam, throwing the
heavy pestle in the air, bringing it down with a thump that jars her
body, sweat glistening on her forehead which she wipes off on the
sleeve of her wrapper without missing a beat. Until she came, I had
never noticed the pestle and mortar pushed against a wall. I usually
buy food ready cooked from one of the sellers a few streets away, or
eat in a restaurant, or get by on bread and coffee. Waiting for water to
boil is all I have the patience for and the only cooking skill I possess. In
contrast, her meticulous cleaning and scraping, peeling and frying and
simmering, the acrid smell of hot palm oil softening into something
sweet and enticing as she adds ingredients one by one, strike me as
possessing the attributes of art. The rendering of yams, hard and
knobbled as prehistoric roots, into the fragrant, steaming mound of
pure white she puts on the table is nothing short of miraculous. Next to
it, the soup shimmers under a layer of shining palm oil, tomato-red
alternating with leaf-green in the depths of the rough clay bowl she
brought home one day from the market. I don’t generally notice
hunger, but when she cooks, I eat like a refugee. It’s only now I
understand that what she offered was not subservience. Instead, I
realize, it was a gift, a votive offering in a ritual of which she was
celebrant and priestess.

Only rarely will she stay all night, generally making her quiet exit
sometime after dark. It’s hard to get her to talk about herself, but one
stifling mosquito-ridden night, one of the few times she sleeps in the
apartment, both of us lying on my narrow, iron-sprung bed, she tells
me what I need to know. She was proud to be one of the older girls at
the school the politicians had built in her village. At fifteen, she was
working towards the WAEC exams, had her eye on a typing course
and maybe a job in an office in town, when her father announced she
was to be married. When she found out the bridegroom was an old
friend of her father’s, someone she had known all her life, whose three
wives she knew, whose children were her school-mates, she cried and
begged to be allowed to finish school. Her imaginings of her own future
had not included being the fourth wife of an old man and staying in the
village for the rest of her life. She had seen the pictures on her father’s
television and knew there was more to the world than that. Elsewhere
in the same country, women dressed up and drove cars to work, chose
who to marry and how many children they would have. She wanted to
be one of those women, not poor and ignorant and overworked like
her mother. Waiting on her father and his friends one evening, she
had seen pictures of a man they called Chief Priest standing outside a
courtroom, his clenched fist raised, and heard a voice explaining that
he was a danger to society, a currency smuggler and hemp smoker,
and that he was in jail, but that he had been there nearly two years
and was soon coming out. Her attention had been caught because,
unlike most of the pictures, this was of someone she knew. She and
her friends listened to his music on the radio, and some of them had
cassettes which they danced to, singing along to the words: ‘Call a
woman African woman/ She go say I be lady-o/She go say I no be
woman…She go say she equal to man/She go say she get power like
man/She go say anything man do/She sef fit do…’ They had to be
careful, because parents didn’t approve of the songs, which
heightened the pleasure and lent the music an aura of rebellion and
danger. She was leaving the room when she caught the name of the
prison they were keeping him in: it wasn’t in Eko, where he lived, it was
in another city, in their part of the country, a city she had been to once
on the bus with her mother when they went to visit her aunt who had
married a man who lived there.

When it became apparent that her  pleas and tears were not going to
make any difference, that her father’s decision was made and nothing
would change it, Ngozi came to a decision of her own. She was going
to the city where Chief Priest was in prison, she was going to find him
and beg him to take her with him back to Eko. The voice on the
television had said he would be out of jail soon. She had heard he
liked women and had many wives, but treated them well and allowed
them to dance on stage in his nightclub and show their bodies and
smoke cigarettes. She wanted to be a woman like that, not a farmer
with a baby on her back. So she left and went to the city, walking miles
out of the village to a place where she knew the bus stopped on the
road and she could get on it without being seen. She had found her
way to her aunt’s house with difficulty, but once there, she had told her
her parents had sent her because they could no longer afford her
school-fees, and could her aunt please find her something to do. It was
not unusual for children to be sent to stay with family in the town, and
her aunt accepted the story, especially since she herself had a
business to run and had just had her third child, so she welcomed
Ngozi as a god-send.

                                                                         
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